I am a true disciple of the kitchen. Some of my quietest and most reflective moments transpire while I’m chopping fresh herbs, sautéing garlic, or fire-roasting peppers. I feel like myself as I move through the culinary process… extracting pots and pans, sharpening my good knife, and prepping my ingredients. I am in my element; I’m in “the zone.” Food Network, here I come!
I realize not everyone has this sort of blissful take on cooking. For some, making dinners is an interminable struggle, a time-consuming chore they dread doing at the end of an otherwise happy day… you know, while they trip over toys, wrestle kids for bath time, and desperately wish they could chill over a good book and a glass of wine instead. But what if a few small tricks could help ease the heavy load just a little bit? Because until we can all afford to hire personal chefs, or train fancy robot sous chefs (for the record, I don’t see either of those things happening at my house any time soon), any shortcuts are a welcome relief. With any luck, maybe these five pointers will take some of the stress out of it for you…
1. Ice, Ice, Baby: I’m just as guilty as you are about forgetting my frozen goods until two years have passed since their expiration date, but I’m trying to be better about letting my freezer work with me. I mean, can’t we all just get along?! I’ve decided to reform my perception of the thing formerly known as, “the place I stash half-melted cartons of ice cream and boxes of Hot Pockets I’ll never eat.” Lately I’m making more of an effort to double my recipes, freeze half of what I’ve made, and then write a notation in my calendar so I don’t forget to defrost it for a dinner the following week. (While I don’t mind two nights in a row of a yummy meal, sometimes it’s nice to have something prepped for an evening when I’m particularly short on time.) I imagine this isn’t even remotely a new concept for my fellow parents out there, so I’ll skip to the real time-saving trick… Ice cube trays are God’s gift to foresight! They are perfect for pre-portioning items such as pesto, tomato sauce, or stocks. Even milk, so you never run out! My favorites? Coffee, which I use to make instant iced lattes when I’m in desperate need of an afternoon pick-me-up, and… drumroll, please… wine. No really! I often deglaze my pan with wine when making stews or sauces. This is an easy way to store the stuff you only use for cooking, so it doesn’t get corked. (Just make sure your kids don’t rummage through your freezer and think they’ve stumbled upon some pretty little homemade popsicles…)
PS. Freeze fresh herbs with a little olive oil for a quick addition to pastas and marinades. Did you also know that you can freeze fresh ginger? It makes a huge difference in Asian inspired dishes, and it lasts an inordinately long time without spoiling!
2. An Herbal Remedy: Mason jars and shot glasses double as handy dandy little herb keepers! Actually, anything that can hold water will work; I’m quite partial to the vintage sake cups I’ve collected over the years. The fact is, fresh herbs quickly wilt in the refrigerator, but dried herbs don’t add nearly the same level of flavor to a dish. Consequently, it’s nice to preserve the fresh ones as long as possible. We grow a garden full of herbs each spring, and I love going out to pick bunches of parsley, rosemary, basil, dill, you name it. That said, I hate wasting food and almost always manage to collect more than I have an immediate need for. When I can’t get through the entire selection in one meal, it’s great to know I can put the stalks in water and use them again throughout the week. It saves me from another trip to the garden or grocery store. Not to mention, they make for beautiful impromptu table adornments!
3. A Watched Pot Still Boils: If you’re anything like me, you don’t have time to babysit boiling pasta… you’re too busy setting table, keeping your daughter from drawing on the wall, and shouting at your dog to stop chewing the library books. Oh wait, that’s me. Anyway, I recently discovered this really cool trick that keeps me from having to stand vigil, and I’m totally hooked. Once you’ve added your pasta to the water, place a wooden spoon across the top of the pot to prevent it from boiling over. It’s that simple! I was skeptical at first too, but it seriously works. I can’t believe I’ve spent so many years blowing on my pasta water as it threatened to spill over the sides of the pot, or racing back in to stop it from overflowing like a bad science experiment, when all I needed was a wooden spoon. Who knew?
4. Oiler Alert: If you’re anything like me, I get very nervous about touching my daughter after dicing jalapenos, or chopping chili peppers. Actually, I get pretty nervous about touching anything, considering I’ve accidentally rubbed my own eyes afterward. Brilliant, I know. I learned the following trick from an Italian chef in Chianti years ago, and I’m eternally grateful to have it in my kitchen trick repertoire. Before dissecting a spicy pepper, coat your hands in olive oil! Be sure to get some underneath your nail beds, where the pepper oils tend to infiltrate. The olive oil will form a protective barrier, which should then allow the pepper oils to wash off a bit more easily. As a side note, milk can cut down on the burning sensation, if you forget!
5. Throw The Towel In: No one likes to lose a digit, and preparing dinner while distracted by tiny tots can be a dangerous ordeal. Put a damp dishtowel underneath your cutting board so it won’t slide around on your kitchen counter! A moist paper towel will work too. This will be safer for you, since you won’t have to worry about unnecessary movement as you cube and mince. Not to mention, it keeps little hands from being able to easily swipe the cutting board off of the counter after you’ve just finish chopping an entire onion. Ahem. Not that that’s happened to me.
** Bonus Trick: You can resurrect virtually any leftovers by putting them in a quiche! See My “Everything But The Kitchen Sink Quiche” recipe from 2013, for an example of this.
Until next time… Peace, Love, and Dirty Diapers,
Jenna von Oy
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